Watching Messi — a field guide

“What Messi does seems routine but it’s really not.”
Luis Enrique

Those words, uttered by Messi’s coach, Luis Enrique, are worth repeating and remembering. They’re a caution and an admonition. Football is sport, not science. Football the way it is played by Messi can verge on the divine.

Messi, like all the other Barça players, trains. Training allows a player to work and work at something until an action becomes rote, in the hope that at those moments, reflex takes over. On the practice court, a player can perfect a topspin backhand up the line, hitting thousands of them so that the shot is reflex. In a Grand Slam final, with a glowering opponent at the net, what happens then? What separates the greats from the goods, and the goods from the merely okays is that the greats make excellence repeatable. They make magic so often that it becomes routine. In training, a striker can score a goal like Messi did when he turned Boateng into a pylon, then smoked the best keeper in the game. In training. Not in a Champions League semifinal. These moments are magic because they are extraordinary. You can’t train for that stuff. A purer example of repeatable genius is Andres Iniesta.

At the Argentina Copa America match in Chicago, every time Messi touched the ball, phones rose into the air as everybody crammed into Soldier Field anticipated magic. He scored one goal. Then another. Finally, a third. Only one of the goals was a “Messi” goal, a tally that marks his status as human highlight reel. The rest of them were goals that — well — any old player could score. But even those goals are elevated because of the man who scored them, as tap-ins generate esctatic emanations because Messi scored it. Not only does he make greatness (almost) repeatable. He elevates the ordinary by virtue of his presence. But he also creates outsized expectations, even from folks who should know better.

“But Messi changes every game, he stops time. He’s the only player who could score a hat trick in every game if he wanted to.”
Quique Sanchez Flores

We can forgive Sanchez Flores’ poetic license, because Messi does want to score a hat trick in every match. But he can’t, particularly in the matches that he most wants to. The Sanchez Flores quote is the danger of Messi and how the world deals with him. Messi doesn’t get compared to Michael Jordan a lot except from this keyboard, but he should. People compare him to Cristiano Ronaldo but that measuring stick isn’t accurate because it’s temporal and immediate. The only analog that Messi has is in the sands of time via a sport he knows, from an era unrelated to his. Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose sent Messi a jersey that the Argentine wore a lot, creating a link to the team that was elevated by the only athlete most of us have witnessed who is comparable to Messi in the way that he makes the exceptional seem routine.

We gasp when Messi runs at five defenders and fails, because he has beaten five defenders before. On more than one occasion. Back in the day, we gasped as Michael Jordan took an opponent’s manhood by pulling off some amamzing physical feat. In a moment known as The Shot, in a playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jordan got the ball, like everyone knew he would. Craig Ehlo defended him, leaping to upset Jordan’s shot. Ehlo jumped, and landed. Jordan was still in the air. He stuck the jumper. Bulls win. That isn’t normal. Messi and Jordan perform the absurd so often that there is danger in how the world approaches them. Greatness should never be an expectation, should never make us forget how rare it is. Many of us are very lucky in that we have had the opportunity to watch, live and in person, players of whom history will speak of in reverent tones, watching grainy highlight reels and wondering if anyone will ever again be that good at anything.

Messi supporters expect him to always be able to single-handedly turn a match, an expectation that morphs into rage when Messi reveals himself to be, sometimes — more often than not, mortal. When he can’t carry a team all by himself, the baying mob turns on accessible targets from Tata Martino to Gonzalo Higuain, entities who let down a player too good to be let down, who his supporters always think deserves the absolute best. And he does. But the danger of hero worship comes when our heroes aren’t, leaving us bereft and psychologically homeless.

— “He will win the match all by himself.”
— “Damn them for not giving him the tools he needs to win matches!”

It’s the yin and yang of a player for whom the spectacular has beocme an expectation, because the other thing that transcendence does is build outsized expectations. It’s weird to be accused of hating Messi. But it’s routine for me, something that gets absorbed, that it isn’t even worth the bother to explain. Because it’s easy to understand where such thinking comes from. The same qualities that spark rage when teammates fail Messi spark ire when someone evaluates Messi in a way that doesn’t jibe with expectation. If you point out that Messi’s recent touches during a match all resulted in loss of the ball, the responses will usually be something like, “Why do you hate him? The next time he touches the ball could be a goal! What’s wrong with you?”

The answer to that last question is quite elegantly addressed by the two coaches who led their teams in the Catalan derby. It’s a question of what’s wrong with the expectation. What we want from life is for things to bring us joy, to elevate us. We want to believe that Messi can score a hat trick every match if he wants to, because that’s what greatness does. It builds massive demands carried in our need for joy. And this is true even as we know that Messi can’t be great all the time. It’s why we erupt into spasms of glee when he does something beyond his own lofty standard. The two goals he created with solo runs against Espanyol were remarkable bits of athletic skill. They were, simply put, absurd.

If reality matched our expectation, we’d just shrug when he did yet another slaloming dribble, mark the goal and return to our match watching routine. People wouldn’t whip our their phones to capture something that we know is going to come. But dealing with Messi is a challenge. We always expect greatness from him, even if we shouldn’t. We should expect him to be what he is, which is an exceptional player who will often morph into a human cheat code, but who will be erratic. Luis Enrique, with his quote, reminds us to not assume exactly what Sanchez Flores does with his. Extraordinary things are to be cherished. Do we take Messi for granted? Hell no. But we should be careful with our expectations. Greatness is elusive, and comes when it will. Greatness isn’t a utility, like the switch you flip when you want light. It’s that comet, streaking across the night sky — an exquisite rarity you were lucky enough to get a glimpse of.

Categorized as Thoughts

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. According to the official club site, all of Neymar, Suarez and Messi have already been allowed to go on their holidays before the Copa Del Rey match against Hercules. That might be interesting to watch…are there even three other forwards in the whole squad? I guess it’s going to be Arda and Rafinha on the wings again.

  2. Well done to LE ! ( I’m assuming he’s not going to drop them on their return :). )

    You can add Pique,off to Columbia, to that threesome as well. Tbh, he probably deserves inclusion just as much for our chances of lifting trophies.

    I’m guessing Iniesta will be having a quiet Christmas at home. I love to think of him inviting Xavi and family over to his for Christmas. Old age and sentimentality, eh? Possibly brought on by hearing this in the car this morning.

    1. ” I love to think of him inviting Xavi and family over to his for Christmas”

      …and play a few rondos with the children around the Christmas tree (no use in letting those skills turn rusty). Yes, great image, I can definitely see it before me now ; )

      On the other hand, I can definitely also see Mascherano tackling Santa Claus to the ground as he tries to escape through the chimney.

    2. Well, following Arda’s hattrick against Gladbach, the idea was floated ( by none other than esteemed Graham Hunter), that he could ‘break up the MSN’ and bench Neymar. So you never know. If all our replacement forwards score a couple and we end up with a 6-0 or something, we might have seen the end of MSN 😉 😀

    3. Not sure how to take ur comment about MSN. Personally I stopped highly depending on both the info and (intention of ) the analysis of Graham Hunter about Barca long time ago. I can be wrong, but to me it seems he lost his sources and heart with Laporta/pep and their people gone. I’m not necessarily talking about his comment about Arda replacing Neymar or his twitter speculation of issue between Neymar and Suarez. Formed this opinion during the last three to four years.

    4. My comment, OF COURSE, was an attempt at a joke 🙂 I am completely with you on Graham Hunter. May be I should have put ‘esteemed’ withing quotes 😉

      Remember Lucho’s reaction when asked before the Real Sociedad game about possibly dropping Neymar to avoid another yellow and suspension? His response was: “Are we joking or what?” So, there you go.

    1. But it’s an interesting decision. FIFA concluded that enough of the cases against RM were without merit, which warranted the reduction. Also noteworthy is that RM used the same lawyers as we did.

      It’s easy to speculate about what might have been the cause of the reconsideration, when Barça had to deal with the full ban. Might be as simple as Barça was made an example, or something more nefarious. Many are automatically presuming something nefarious, which I don’t know is entirely accurate.

    2. I’m guessing there’s a full written judgement to follow which should shed some light on a case which on the face of it seems to have a lot of similarities. The matters under consideration seemed to me to be a matter of fact rather than ones with room for a lot of leeway in interpretation so it should be clear but we’ll see. We’re right to ask for an explanation of the differences.

  3. .
    Well, well this was to be expected no?
    Don Florentino’s clout can never be underestimated.
    I’ll never forgive Rosell for having dragged my club through such dirt and it experiencing such a dramatic fall from grace from a golden period when it seemed like the club could do no wrong.

  4. Another chapter in the book of “stats DO lie”: From Barcastuff: “Alcacer’s gone 742 minutes without an official goal. While it’s been 796 minutes since Neymar last scored an official goal for Barca [sport]”


    1. Yup.

      Those minutes do include, among other things, one particular minute in which Ney and Messi stole that improbable point at Anoeta, right? Here’s the stat: 10 seconds, 1 point 😀

  5. .
    This is my favourite tweet that sums up the gulf in quality and why CR and messi can and should never be compared to one another.

    “Messi is the greatest of all time. Cristiano isn’t even the greatest Ronaldo”

  6. Boy, it’s gonna be slow going over the next week or so. I’m already reduced to watching a gif of Thiago passing to Santa !

    Watched the game last night and good to see the “seconds” get a full game to stretch their legs. I thought they were poor until the penalty but after that they seemed to find their feet and played some decent football. Pick for me were Suarez and Umtiti. Nice to see Alcacer get a goal. Had a couple of other chances too so let’s hope it’s a turning point for him.

    Just watched my recording of last night’s Bayern match to see how Thiago is doing. Regular readers will know my opinion of where our next €80m should be spent. He was everything I’d expect although to be fair they had a player sent off early so it has to be viewed in that context. However, speed of thought, technical ability, passing vision. ( no he didn’t pass to Santa as I mentioned earlier – you get a much better idea from the longer view in the match coverage – good story though ! ) were all there in abundance.

    Where was I ? Demands the ball, very mobile, seemed to have the freedom to wander and took advantage of it, scored a goal but more importantly got into the box on several occasions. Does he come close to Xavi – like control of the game ? Hmm, maybe not atm but he’s not far away. Worryingly, he was ordering the older players about which either means he’s becoming their leader on the pitch, he’s still arrogant, he’s about to be made their next captain. ( my guess) or he just doesn’t care. Anyway, a great player and the next , best midfielder in the world once Ini goes.

    If we want him I reckon it’d have to be next summer as after that he’s gonna be too expensive. One snag, though, might be that it could well affect his brother’s stay at the club . If we don’t pick him up I reckon Guardiola will next summer, along with possibly Samper. If he wants City playing the way he’d like, he needs young players who play that way naturally and he doesn’t have a lot of options or a lot more time. They look to me to be a little short this season, although mainly in defence. The team I think they looked best against was us – which is a little depressing for this time of year !

    Anyway, off to prepare for tonight’s dads vs lads footie game. May have a short sleep to avoid over playing which seems to be the modern curse. Also, already bridling at the thought of any possible rotation tonight. Can see why Messi won’t have any part of it 🙂

    1. No way in Hades would I spend 80m for Thiago Alcantara. Or even 50. I understand why people like him, and I think he is a wonderful talent. But I will always have a thing about players who forsake the club, and paying big money for their return. With Fabregas it was different (even as I was also against that transfer). I respect Thiago A. for making the decision about his future, and good luck to him as long as Bayern isn’t playing Barça.

      But I would rather see the club work hard to develop the likes of Denis Suarez, and promote/nurture Carles Alena than splash big for someone else. Charity has to begin at home. There is also the very fast progress that Gomes, who is still quite young, is making.

      I also don’t see Guardiola picking up either Thiago A. or Samper, but I have yet to see Samper play well enough in full (the important caveat), even as the different Granada formations have allowed him to be comfortable in their system and consequently, look really good, to warrant a return to Barça. City might buy him as a project, but if he gets to that level Barça would recall him. Plus if City is going to spend big anywhere, it’s going to be on wingbacks. They got lucky that we went to sleep in the second half, but teams have been attacking their weaknesses with zeal.

      Iniesta has one more good, full year in him, then a season in the Xaviesque “emeritus” role. That gives Barça plenty of time to resolve the succession dilemma, even as the club is moving away from the style of football that makes the necessity for a “Xavi replacement” (as if such a wondrous thing could exist) increasingly less vital.

  7. That’s fine, Kxevin but then you and I aren’t looking for the same type of midfield !

    I just threw out the €80m as I have no idea what he would cost us now but how much would you expect to pay for the midfield maestro of one of the top four teams in Europe ? I have nothing against him for leaving us as he had the twins in front of him. I was less than pleased with the manner of his leaving but then some are okay with the way Mascherano came to us and to me that was much much worse.

    I’ve no objection to the club working with the talents we have but we’re kidding ourselves if we think any of them are going to be world class and that’s what we need – and haven’t had. I’m not seeing the fast progress of Gomes. In truth I’m not seeing anything fast about him at all. He is a decent player and will improve I’m sure but not to that extent. However, time will tell. Suarez I kinda like for his ball carrying but he has a pretty limited set of other skills at this level.

    I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of Guardiola’s thoughts but I’d be surprised if at least one of those I mentioned didn’t end up there. He’s gonna have a pot of money to spend and this is the man who once tried to field a team of midfielders. There aren’t many players out there who fit his standards of passing and movement.

    I take your point absolutely about Samper. I haven’t seen him play in full yet either ! That’s my point. He should have been ahead of some of the others we purchased in terms of getting a chance for me. Btw, the various Granada formations have been awful. Having watched them every week they started. with all eleven ( remember they’re almost all on loan ) playing for themselves, moved on to lumping the ball up the park asap, then had a brief spell when Samper got a start again where they used him half decently and the results improved ( largely due to his calming influence) but in the last game we’re back to he picks it up , plays a pass and sees it next about ten minutes later. They’re going down and not even Xavi could save them and worse it bears no resemblance to what he’d experience at Barca. Silly, silly decision to send him there. I’m not sure if he’ll make it to the very top either but I know he’s a better passer than anyone in our current young midfield crop. To me, you get him back while Ini is still here to allow him to settle in rather than having to be the mainstay of our passing game. If he plays in a top side and can’t have it, fine.

    You and I will differ on the merits of moving away from this style of football, just as we differ on the game moving to the wings and on always getting the ball up front as quickly as possible. And we will continue to knock over most of the teams we meet while the front three are on form but continue to suffer at the top levels because we can’t hold and use the ball in midfield. It’s not just Iniesta’s quality which has saved us since his return. He’s also brought back a style of play in the middle field which has raised our game all over the pitch.

    Just different ways of looking at the game.

    1. It’s incorrect to characterize my view as liking moving away from this style of football. The game is doing that, and I’m pointing out that such things are happening. The game is also moving to the wings, whether people like it or not. I don’t care how Barça does it, as long as they do it.

      The role of a midfielder at Barça has changed over time, evolving even under Guardiola. It will continue to change. There isn’t one way to win football matches. All of the advocates of positional football sound as if with the right principles, you could field a team of B players and beat Atleti. No. Positional football worked so well because it was being implemented by some of the greatest players the game has seen. The reason it is not working at Manchester City because it is not.

      Players still make the difference. What I will say regarding the midfield is that I don’t see a lot of point in mucking about with the ball in midfield if the most dangerous players, who can do for and among themselves, want the ball. Give it to them and stand back.

      Iniesta is a brilliant player, but the team is playing differently (as evinced against Hercules yesterday) as a unit. Iniesta is certainly part of that, but spaces are closed, movement is light years better. The team is no longer moving like a bunch of old men.

      As far as suffering at the top levels, I’ll take the kind of suffering that a treble and a double bring. Midfield play wasn’t going to beat Atleti last year. Putting the ball in the net was. Iniesta was there was Barça crashed out, and at oine point we were having close to 80 percent possession. But folks still have to put the ball in the net.

      Guardiola’s tenure was wonderful, but as the number of people who could put the ball in the net diminished, so did results. Frist year, Henry/Eto’o/Messi. Second year, the failed Ibrahimovic experiment, then David Villa and increasingly compressed space. Yes, that Manchester United Champions League win was an exquisite match of football. But its core was all-pitch, team-wide quality.

      My personal view is that the midfield at FC Barcelona is accorded too much weight. It’s blasphemous, I recognize. The best Barça defended AND attacked with eleven. The Guardiola treble was the source of that. It’s no coincidence that both coaches, Guardiola and Enrique, won Trebles with teams that looked and functioned kinda the same. Did L/E. try to fiddle around too much? For my tastes, yes … a bit … But if his additions work out and assimilate as Turan has, the team will be as strong as it has ever been.

      Thiago is world class. But we either run the system, which doesn’t necessitate world class players, or we get world class players and turn them loose. It always comes back to the players. And it always will. The question is where do you find the most value. By the time the club is done paying Messi, Suarez and Neymar, along with Busquets and everybody else holding their hands out, economies will have to be found. Denis Suarez isn’t Thiago Alcantara. But with Busquets, Messi, Neymar and Suarez, how good does that guy need to be, assuming his development doesn’t cease from this moment on, even as we can assume that it will not, that he will continue to improve.

      I want the team that I love to win. I don’t care how it happens. A Sergi Roberto cross to Turan’s head, 47 perfect passes around a midfield rondo, I don’t care. But that makes me a weirdo. Football for me isn’t theory. It’s joy. It’s why tactics kinda bore me except from a precious few writers. Did we win? Excellent. Was is perfect? No? But we still won. That’s where it starts for me. A coach can play the most beautiful football but if he loses, he’s gone. And should be, because he isn’t doing his job.

      Luis Enrique realizes that, which is why he isn’t all that interested in aesthetics.

      What I liked from the Cataan derby to Hercules is that the team, once it got rolling, played pretty much the same from the midfield in. Only the names changed. Gomes was moving balls along instead of Busquets, Suarez was darting around instead of Iniesta. That’s the ideal. Let’s see if it continues.

    2. I don’t think I understand, Kxevin. How does beautiful midfield-based football not assure consistent results? Of course we are not going to win some matches, but we will surely control most matches and that increases the probability of winning always. Even when we are playing really tough opponents.

      I have to point out that having MSN doesn’t excuse the need to have a strong midfield. Of course it does. Simply look at the recent matches Iniesta was absent. And can we please ignore the Hercules match? There is a reason reserves played it. So yes, even with MSN at the peak of their powers, we need a lot better than Gomez to make sure that we don’t play like Chelsea, hoofing balls upfield hoping Saurez will catch it.

      I am with Jim in that I don’t think anyone else apart from Thiago has the potential to replace Iniesta. And Iniesta for me is surely worth more than all the Bale’s and Neymars of the world. Our current midfielders are a far short (incl Arda) and it is a 50-50 chance that they will become worthy. So a club like FCB has to take a 50-50 bet about its relevancy?

      Last year’s match against Ath- we lost despite having a strong midfield. With Denis or Gomez in that midfield instead of Ini, we start as underdogs!

    3. Well to start with, there is no such thing as “consistent results.” It’s why the Guardiola teams didn’t win a treble every season.

      Don’t make the mistake of assuming I’m not a proponent of midfield control just because I don’t think it the be all and end all. Only a maniac wouldn’t want to keep the ball and control the match. My sole point is that the midfield has undergone a change in emphasis not only at Barça but in the game in a general sense. Things always evolve.

      We controlled the Champions League tie against Atleti last season, and lost. Match control is overrated. Our possession stats were eye-popping in the 7-0 Bayern thrashing.

      People are saying that Iniesta is the sole reason the team is playing better, which isn’t the case. His presence is part of why the team is playing better, but the group is doing a great many things differently. Iniesta is magic, but also look at Busquets, look at how Sergi Roberto is playing his zone now, look at the more controlled Alba, the freedom afforded Neymar, etc, etc. It’s a lot of things.

      Putting the ball in the net increases the probabability of winning. If you have 90% possession and with that 10% the opponent scores a pair of counterattack goals, then what? Barça has to put the ball in the net, and has the players in the front line to do that. Midfield play has its place, and always will. But that place is changing, and that’s okay.

      We can’t and shouldn’t forget about Hercules. Would we have forgotten about Hercules had the team lost? That match is, potentially, part of an arc where we are possibly seeing how Luis Enrique would like his teams to play, irrespective of who’s in the XI. Why should we forget about that?

      As for Gomes, he’s a top quality player who is bedding into the team. His trajectory, should he realize his capabilities, is high. And that’s a good thing.

      Have you watched Chelsea lately? I have. They are scoring goals off the counter just like we are. And that route one football for the first goal against Espanyol was brilliant. Who would knock that? IIRC, Chelsea scored a similar goal against City. It’s football.

      The biggest mistake, for me, is to get so tied to the notion that football has to be a single Way that we lose sight of the totality of the game. My favorite Barça match of the Guardiola era is the 2-6 Classic. Goals were scored in all kinds of ways, and the midfield use was fascinating. One popped over the top to Henry, a Puyol header, an Henry bust out, midfield pressure, Brilliant, and the midfield was used almost as it is now, as a way to get the ball to the folks who can put it in the net. And that’s okay.

      Finally, there is no replacement for Iniesta. Just as there is no replacement for Messi, or Xavi, or Puyol. But if I were looking for an expensive mid for Barça, it wouldn’t be Thiago. I’d line up behind Xavi in chasing Couthinho.

  8. Good discussion guys. Gets to the heart of what we want from our team .

    First, a spookily apt comment from last night’s dads vs lads game. Played on a huge artificial pitch at our local team’s ground the lads insisted on running / dribbling with the ball to show us up as kids here tend to do. This usually involved them heading out to the touch lines which I had trouble seeing, never mind visiting. Upon remarking to another dad that I could never get out there to tackle them his exact comment was ” Don’t worry. They’ll have to come back in eventually! ” I have to admit a smile played across my lips, as they say !

    Just a couple of thoughts, not to prolong disagreement just because we have nothing much else to talk about.

    First, if we want to get the ball to the front three asap why don’t we just get TS to hoof it to them ? Cut out the middle man, so go speak 🙂 I’m confused if we’re zealots about playing it on the ground from the keeper only for it to get to the defence / mids just to lamp it on to the front three.

    Second, still not sure how the game has changed away from us. Nobody could play like us to move away from it ! Real Madrid did see what was happening, bought Kroos and Modrif to improve their passing game and have been a much better team since but other than that I’m not sure where the examples are. Chelsea have never been a great team to watch and still aren’t for me. I don’t mind how we score goals but as I’ve said before a great midfield and a great forward line are in no way mutually exclusive.

    We lost to Atleti last year not because we didn’t score goals but because we lost easy ones to them ( largely thanks to a mutual acquaintance of ours ) . If we give a team something to hold onto Atleti are one of the best at it.

    With regard to Ini, my take was that Busi’s game was quite clearly helped by having Ini available to take some of the playmaking off him and reducing his need to be everywhere to start the play.

    Lastly, hopefully opponents’ breakaway goals are a thing of the past for us, if LE is serious about replacing Masche. I’m not convinced he gets the message though. With Pique / Umtiti I’d expect the clean sheets to flow and that makes everything easier.

    Extra point. Agreed absolutely on Iniesta. I’m an admirer of Coutinho as well but I don’t see him as an a Iniesta replacement. He’s more an assist creator through magical plays like Neymar. Not sure he’s a playmaker in that sense. It would be interesting to see if Xavi would choose Coutinho over Thiago if it were an either or though.

    Btw, I read a column by a Graham Hunter about Turan possibly benching Neymar. Not sure to which planet he refers but it strikes me someone has sent him an early crate of a Buckfast ( Scottish reference ! )

  9. Really great discussion here, guys.

    And with that, Merry Christmas to all of you! I wish ourselves some more magical passes from Iniesta, a couple of amazing runs from Messi, trickstery from Neymar, calmness from our defense, and so on.

  10. Aleix Vidal was a smart transfer.But the guy still cant defend and his positioning is far from what must be.So i dont blame anyone.Shit happens.Cancelo can work.But just rumour for now.Hercules game was interesting.Gomes as a pivot Suarez as a Iniesta and Raki as raki.I can see Denis future here but sadly not Rafhinia.Not as a RW.He is more a 10 and we dont play with a 10.Paco also try to adapt to a system that needs from the 9 a lot of things.What we dont understand sometimes:Teams when plays us dont play open.I watched Bilbao-Santander.Open game,Racing tried to play.We are the only team that we either play Madrid or a 3d division team they have the same gameplan.It s strange but shows the huge respect that the world have for us.No other team have that respect.There are and games like City when they try to press us high but the majority is the other way.

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